Students can feel overwhelmed by all the information they receive in school from time to time. Most often, especially with older kids, I see this manifest in the same way: a frustrated plea of “When will I ever use…?” It can be tough to answer these questions sometimes, so we would like to introduce a new blog series where we will tackle issues that students tend to struggle with and explain their practicality. Today, we’re going to talk about what the study of statistics is and why it is vitally important in the modern world.
WHAT ARE STATISTICS?
Statistics is, generally, the formal analysis of numbers and the relationships or patterns they form. This definition makes it sound as if it only applies to mathematicians, but the scope is much broader. In fact, statistics are used in nearly every field of study to some degree. Nearly all businesses collect data, or numbers, on their customers, and they use statistics to track trends, predict future interests, and expand their client bases. For example, one of our blog writers used statistics to analyze the effects of reading on things like comprehension and writing.
HOW ARE STATISTICS USED?
Imagine you are a doctor interested in finding out if a certain gene makes people more likely to get a certain disease. Or maybe you are a businessperson trying to predict whether a new product is going to sell well. Maybe you are a scientist trying to uncover if a relationship exists between one factor and another. Perhaps you enjoy your math classes and are looking to dive deeper into some of the math concepts you are learning. You could even just be a person interested in building the best fantasy football team. In all of these instances, and in so many more, you will likely have a large quantity of numbers to deal with—sales figures, annual incomes, number of interceptions, family members affected by a disease, etc. Obviously the numbers have value, but thousands of numbers in a spreadsheet aren’t very informative on their own. How do you make sense of them all?
REAL WORLD EXAMPLE UTILIZING STATISTICS
This is where statistics come into play. An extremely versatile science, statistics help us summarize data, find trends, and predict future outcomes. Let me show you a simple example using an excerpt from a data set freely available online regarding changes in food prices (numbers are percentages)..
Let’s make sense of these numbers! First, we can use Microsoft Excel to find the mean, or average. I’ll do it for the two annual figures. This shows us if food prices went up or down, on average, in 2014 and 2015.
From this, we can see that food prices went up both years, but prices went up more in 2014 than they did in 2015. Another simple analysis we can do is find the standard deviation of the data, or the relative spread in the numbers.
Now, we know a little bit more. We can tell that although food prices rose less in 2015 than they did in 2014, there was more variability in the rise of prices as well. In other words, the prices overall may have been lower in 2015, but the way in which the prices changed were more sporadic than in 2014.
Are there any other applications for using Statistics?
Absolutely! Even if you are somehow still certain that you will never use statistics in your future job ever, there are still benefits to learning at least the basic concepts. Many statistics programs, such as R (which is free) and MATLAB, use basic coding to get the information you need. In other words, learning programs like these ones kill two birds with one stone; you learn a valuable science, and you learn the basics of coding. While coding may not be a core element of every job on the market, any 20-something looking for work can tell you that it helps substantially to have that skill on your resume. Just a very basic understanding of coding helps you understand conversations about coding and makes you an asset instead of someone who needs things explained regularly.
Additionally, statistics is a worthwhile study for anyone who plans to invest money in any way at any point. That may sound like I am overreaching, but truthfully, statistics are that practical. Using data on where stocks have been in the past can help you predict where they will be in the future, and analyzing companies’ profits can give you a clear picture of their growth over time. Of course, investing is always a risk, however, the use of statistical methods helps to provide a factual basis for investments you plan to make.
OK, BUT WHAT ABOUT STATISTICS IN EVERYDAY LIFE?
Using Statistics to Understand Studies and Results
There’s use there as well! Have you ever been watching the news and heard an anchor say something about a “new study” with “shocking results” and proceed to explain some kind of connection that sounds completely improbable? One week, dark chocolate adds ten years to your life, and the next, red wine reduces divorce rates. Well, in cases like these, there’s a decent chance of misreporting. However, it is important to not dismiss all new research out-of-hand simply because some has proven to be misleading. Having a basic understanding of statistics will help you have a critical eye when you see these kinds of findings. You will be able to tell if the finding seems accurate, or if they have used methods that inflate their results.
USING STATISTICS TO INTERPRET POLLS
You can also use a basic knowledge of statistics to interpret polls you may see reported in various news outlets. For example, if a survey has a “margin of error” of 2%, what does that mean? Can the poll be trusted? If the poll has a sample size of 200, how does that affect the results? Is it an accurate representation of actual thoughts and feelings? This kind of information is critical to being an informed person, and can help you make more thought-out decisions.
USING STATISTICS IN SPORTS
Finally, in a more light-hearted application, statistics can be massively useful to the sports fanatic. Most professional athletes’ statistics are available online, and using analytic methods, we can make predictions on how players will perform in the upcoming season. Expert sports analysts rely on data and statistical analyses to intelligently discuss the risks and rewards of trades, the likelihood that someone will have a good season, or even to help determine if a particular coach will improve a team’s record.
I hope I have convinced anyone reading how important and practical statistics are to so many aspects of a person’s life. Are there other questions you have about the implementation of statistics in daily life? Do you have any requests for the next topic we cover in this series? Tell us below!
Victoria Kerns, Teacher at A Grade Ahead